Cast: Anthony Ramos, Corey Hawkins, Leslie Grace, Melissa Barrera, Olga Merediz. Directed by Jon M. Chu.
As cinemas reopen, there’s a growing hunger for the kind of big event movies that people can share together. Jon M. Chu’s latest film is the sort that has you hoping to enjoy it with a room full of people.
Based on Lin-Manuel Miranda’s musical of the same name, In The Heights follows Usnavi, a Dominican bodega owner who dreams of returning to his homeland and opening a beachfront bar that his father once owned, as the hopes and dreams of the Latin-American community of Washington Heights shift towards gentrification.
Before Miranda won as many Tony awards as is possible, with his hip-hop musical about the life of the founding father Alexander Hamilton, he wrote and starred in one about the Latin-American community that he saw and was a part of. The very existence of In The Heights feels like the natural progression of both Miranda’s success with Hamilton and director Chu’s success with Crazy Rich Asians.
This adaptation sees a cast of non-white performers speaking of their culture and fears without a worry that it might alienate a white audience. It’s the specifics of the culture that actually speak to a universality. Miranda’s musical, which itself was based on a book by Quiara Alegria Hudes who writes the screenplay here, somehow manages to never feel like an adaptation of a stage show. It’s filled with an energy and direction from Chu that always feels like a film.
Chu makes the square block of Washington Heights feels as epic and expansive as any globe-trotting adventure, bringing the same wit and sense of scale to the streets that he did with the grand Asian structures of his hit rom-com. Here he plays with the camera, plays with form and brings a style to the film that never feels too gimmicky. It helps that not only is he directing a well-written screenplay, and that his cinematographer Alice Brooks shoots the heat of the day and the muggy nights that engulf the story so well, but also that he has a fantastic cast.
Aside from a graciously extended cameo from Miranda himself, the cast is lead by Anthony Ramos, perhaps best known for playing Miranda’s son in Hamilton. Ramos here shows he has real movie star potential, with an affinity for comedy, drama, emotion and a raw sex appeal that cannot be taught. The camera loves him in a way that you cannot manufacture and his easy charm is hard to ignore. His onscreen chemistry with Melissa Barrera as Vanessa is also one that cannot be overstated, the will-they/won’t-they that drives the plot only works if you buy into the sexual tension between them – luckily they have it.
The supporting cast is all fantastic, the seasoned pro of Jimmy Smits reminds us that he is a magnetic actor that can command a screen better than anybody, while Olga Merediz reprises her Tony-nominated role as the heights Abuela. Merediz makes you believe that a woman could essentially adopt a whole block, and her solo will leave you weeping at its beauty.
While Leslie Grace and Corey Hawkins hold the screen well with their lovelorn subplot. Chu and Brooks treat the solo emotional songs with the same respect they do the bigger numbers. Songs with two people singing to each other are as epic in the emotional as the big dance numbers are in their scale – the opening number laying the table for what the film will be, while the jaunty fun of “Tell Me Something I Don’t Know” is the kind of song that has you wanting to sing along.
As the film builds to its finale, and a flight of fancy dance that feels like a La La Land style diversion you get the feeling that the film is going on a bit long, and as each subplot attempts to resolve itself it can begin to feel a little like there’s too much to really focus on, and yet the film keeps the joy with the sense that this is a story of identity.
In the Heights might be the first of four musicals being released this year but it stands as an intimate epic about identity, about community and about the explosive power that comes from differing cultures. This bodes very well for Chu’s foray into the world of Wicked.